Kids also caught entering illegally
Hundreds languish in shelters
By Lourdes Medrano
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.17.2006
PHOENIX In House No. 7, teen Diego Moncayo sat pensively in a sunken living room, watching his 18 young roommates make the most of their free time with foosball and checkers.
Thoughts of his impending deportation to Ecuador weigh heavily on Moncayo, 17. He knows the adults around him are planning his departure from the Phoenix shelter where he has stayed since being caught sneaking across the U.S.-Mexican border without his parents or an adult guardian.
“I came a long way for nothing,” a somber Moncayo said almost in a whisper as he talked about how he was supposed to join the father he hasn't seen in eight years in New Jersey. “It truly hurts.”
Moncayo is one of nearly 1,700 children who passed through the shelter in the last year after foiled attempts to enter the country illegally and on their own. Most come from Central America, but others come from as far away as Brazil, Cuba and Ghana. With few exceptions, minors from Mexico are returned to children's shelters in Mexican border towns.
The nonprofit Southwest Key Program Inc. runs Arizona's only temporary shelter for detained children in a nondescript building complex behind a locked black gate. It is one of 36 shelters in the country established in the past three years under the Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for unaccompanied minors in federal custody. Previously, the duty fell to the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The shelters in eight states took in close to 8,000 unaccompanied children from 14 countries last fiscal year, said Martha Newton, director of the federal office. Most youngsters came from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The figures reflect the large number of children caught at the border in recent years, with most being captured in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. In fiscal 2006, agents nabbed about 39,000 minors.
The switch to shelters from juvenile-justice centers followed years of criticism against immigration authorities for their treatment of children. Under a settled class-action suit, Flores v. Reno, the government agreed to hold minors in less-restrictive environments.
Victoria Lopez, director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program, which provides free legal counsel to minors, said children in shelters like the one in Phoenix are treated better now.
But their future remains uncertain after they leave with orders to face an immigration judge who decides their legal fate if they show up in court, she said. Existing immigration laws make it difficult for children to obtain legal status, including asylum, she said.
Often, minors turn 18 in shelters or foster care without resolving their legal cases, Lpez said, and they end up in jails.
“The legal challenges are not over,” she noted, saying that there is no reliable system for tracking children once they leave detention.
At the Phoenix shelter, children wait to be sent back to their country, to relatives in the United States or, in fewer cases, to foster care until they become adults.
They get a taste of the life many will know only temporarily. They go to school, they kick around soccer balls and they go on field trips to museums.
For the 100 children at Southwest Key, the shelter is a stark contrast to the life they left behind. They come from poverty, from the streets and from abusive backgrounds, said shelter director Ivonne Gonzalez. Most are between 15 and 17 years old, she said, but even infants and boys and girls under 10 have spent time here.
Many arrive at the shelter traumatized by their harrowing journeys north, she said, and they initially are reluctant to talk about their encounters with smugglers and Border Patrol agents. Especially vulnerable, Gonzalez said, are victims of trafficking children who are smuggled into the country for indentured servitude in various jobs, including prostitution.
Over time, the children open up to youth workers, case managers, clinicians and attorneys, Gonzalez said. “We tell them this is not a jail. We tell them they are safe here.”
The children are separated into their own numbered houses, usually in groups of about 20. The younger boys stay with the girls. Youth workers and other staff members accompany the children at all times.
With the round-the-clock supervision, Gonzalez said, few children try to escape.
“They are treated better here than they have in a long time.”
The shelter director said the program simulates as close to a school environment as possible to prepare the children who might stay in the country for U.S. culture. But even if they are deported, she said, the boys and girls will go back home with more skills than when they came in.
They also walk away with more clothes, shoes and personal care supplies, she said, many of them donated by churches and other community groups. The children's needs usually surpass the shelter's annual budget of $5 million, Gonzalez said.
Moncayo, the Ecuadorean teen, said the shelter is not the place he hoped to be in, but he is grateful for having food to eat and a roof over his head since he arrived in October.
“The truth is that this isn't what you come looking for,” the teen said. “You come looking for work; you come hoping to be close to family.”
His wish to be with his father was not to be. Like many parents who live in the country illegally, Moncayo's father chose not to pick up his son at the shelter for fear of deportation.
Moncayo said he understands. “He is the main provider for the family in Ecuador,” the boy said.
The youth left Ecuador Oct. 2 and traveled north by plane, by bus and by freight train, spending two weeks in a Mexicali stash house where others waited to slip into California.
The Border Patrol cut short Moncayo's journey to New Jersey soon after his feet touched U.S. soil.
Even as he prepares to be deported, Moncayo is thinking about coming back. His parents want him to stay put in Ecuador, but the teen said he feels obligated to help pay the debt his family incurred by mortgaging some land to pay the smuggler's fee of more than $10,000.
“Maybe I will try again, maybe next time I'll make it,” he said.
La deuda, the debt, also concerns Baldemar Pablo, 17, who left his home in Guatemala about three months ago. He was to be deported to his country Friday because his relatives, living illegally in Atlanta, would not pick him up.
His family debt jumped to about $5,000 after his smuggler guided him past Mexican immigration authorities but demanded more money to get him across the Arizona border into the Altar Valley where he was detained.
“It's tough to make it to the United States,” Pablo said, recalling his long bus ride through Mexico, his smuggler's extortion tactics, his long walk in the desert darkness and finally, the blinding lights of the Border Patrol. Still, he seems intent on returning.
“God willing, I will try to come back,” Pablo said, sounding as if he meant every word. “I will work by day and go to school by night.”
Unlike most minors in detention, Honduran Germn Rod-riguez said he lived and worked several months in Tucson, with relatives who work in the country illegally, before landing at Southwest Key in October.
His illegal status came to light one morning as he drove home and a police officer stopped him for no apparent reason, Rod-riguez said. He said he was taken to a Border Patrol station where he spent five days before being moved to Southwest Key.
Like Moncayo and Pablo, Rodriguez also faces deportation because his relatives won't come to the shelter. All those who claim responsibility for a minor must undergo an extensive background check for the safety of children who are released, shelter administrators said. The federal requirement and the risk of being caught while traveling keeps many family members away.
The three youngsters hope they will be back home in time to spend Christmas with their families. Maybe they will go north after the New Year, they said. With any luck, they said, maybe they will stay out of the shelter.
For the moment, school, checkers, foosball and soccer help to keep the boys' grown-up worries at bay.
Contact reporter Lourdes Medrano at 520-573-4347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.